***

Nick and Jane were glad that they had gone to see the end of the world, because it gave them something special to talk about at Mike and Ruby’s party. One always likes to come to a party armed with a little conversation. Mike and Ruby give marvelous parties. Their home is superb, one of the finest in the neighborhood. It is truly a home for all seasons, all moods. Their very special corner of the world. With more space indoors and out… more wide-open freedom. The living room with its exposed ceiling beams is a natural focal point for entertaining. Custom-finished, with a conversation pit and fireplace. There’s also a family room with beamed ceiling and wood paneling… plus a study. And a magnificent master suite with twelve-foot dressing room and private bath. Solidly impressive exterior design. Sheltered courtyard. Beautifully wooded ?-acre grounds. Their parties are highlights of any month. Nick and Jane waited until they thought enough people had arrived. Then Jane nudged Nick and Nick said gaily, “You know what we did last week? Hey, we went to see the end of the world!”

“The end of the world?” Henry asked.

“You went to see it?” said Henry’s wife Cynthia.

“How did you manage that?” Paula wanted to know.

“It’s been available since March,” Stan told her. “I think a division of American Express runs it.”

Nick was put out to discover that Stan already knew. Quickly, before Stan could say anything more, Nick said, “Yes, it’s just started. Our travel agent found out for us. What they do is they put you in this machine, it looks like a tiny teeny submarine, you know, with dials and levers up front behind a plastic wall to keep you from touching anything, and they send you into the future. You can charge it with any of the regular credit cards.”

“It must be very expensive,” Marcia said.

“They’re bringing the costs down rapidly,” Jane said. “Last year only millionaires could afford it. Really, haven’t you heard about it before?”

“What did you see?” Henry asked.

“For a while, just grayness outside the porthole,” said Nick. “And a kind of flickering effect.” Everybody was looking at him. He enjoyed the attention. Jane wore a rapt, loving expression. “Then the haze cleared and a voice said over a loudspeaker that we had now reached the very end of time, when life had become impossible on Earth. Of course we were sealed into the submarine thing. Only looking out. On this beach, this empty beach. The water a funny gray color with a pink sheen. And then the sun came up. It was red like it sometimes is at sunrise, only it stayed red as it got to the middle of the sky, and it looked lumpy and sagging at the edges. Like a few of us, hah hah. Lumpy and sagging at the edges. A cold wind blowing across the beach.”

“If you were sealed in the submarine, how did you know there was a cold wind?” Cynthia asked.

Jane glared at her. Nick said, “We could see the sand blowing around. And it looked cold. The gray ocean. Like in winter.”

“Tell them about the crab,” said Jane.

“Yes, and the crab. The last life-form on Earth. It wasn’t really a crab, of course, it was something about two feet wide and a foot high, with thick shiny green armor and maybe a dozen legs and some curving horns coming up, and it moved slowly from right to left in front of us. It took all day to cross the beach. And toward nightfall it died. Its horns went limp and it stopped moving. The tide came in and carried it away. The sun went down. There wasn’t any moon. The stars didn’t seem to be in the right places. The loudspeaker told us we had just seen the death of Earth’s last living thing.”

“How eerie!” cried Paula.

“Were you gone very long?” Ruby asked.

“Three hours,” Jane said. “You can spend weeks or days at the end of the world, if you want to pay extra, but they always bring you back to a point three hours after you went. To hold down the babysitter expenses.”

Mike offered Nick some pot. “That’s really something,” he said. “To have gone to the end of the world. Hey, Ruby, maybe we’ll talk to the travel agent about it.”

Nick took a deep drag and passed the joint to Jane. He felt pleased with himself about the way he had told the story. They had all been very impressed. That swollen red sun, that scuttling crab. The trip had cost more than a month in Japan, but it had been a good investment. He and Jane were the first in the neighborhood who had gone. That was important. Paula was staring at him in awe. Nick knew that she regarded him in a completely different light now. Possibly she would meet him at a motel on Tuesday at lunchtime. Last month she had turned him down but now he had an extra attractiveness for her. Nick winked at her. Cynthia was holding hands with Stan. Henry and Mike both were crouched at Jane’s feet. Mike and Ruby’s twelve-year-old son came into the room and stood at the edge of the conversation pit. He said, “There just was a bulletin on the news. Mutated amoebas escaped from a government research station and got into Lake Michigan. They’re carrying a tissue-dissolving virus and everybody in seven states is supposed to boil their water until further notice.” Mike scowled at the boy and said, “It’s after your bedtime, Timmy.” The boy went out. The doorbell rang. Ruby answered it and returned with Eddie and Fran.

Paula said, “Nick and Jane went to see to end of the world. They’ve just been telling us all about it.”

“Gee,” said Eddie, “we did that too, on Wednesday night.”

Nick was crestfallen. Jane bit her lip and asked Cynthia quietly why Fran always wore such flashy dresses. Ruby said, “You saw the whole works, eh? The crab and everything?”

“The crab?” Eddie said. “What crab? We didn’t see the crab.”

“It must have died the time before,” Paula said. “When Nick and Jane were there.”

Mike said, “A fresh shipment of Cuernavaca Lightning is in. Here, have a toke.”

“How long ago did you do it?” Eddie said to Nick.

“Sunday afternoon. I guess we were about the first,.”

“Great trip, isn’t it?” Eddie said. “A little somber, though. When the last hill crumbles into the sea.”

“That’s not what we saw,” said Jane. “And you didn’t see the crab? Maybe we were on different trips.”

Mike said, “What was it like for you, Eddie?”

Eddie put his arms around Cynthia from behind. He said. “They put us into this little capsule, with a porthole, you know, and a lot of instruments and—”

“We heard that part,” said Paula. “What did you see?”

“The end of the world,” Eddie said. “When water covers everything. The sun and the moon were in the sky at the same time—”

“We didn’t see the moon at all,” Jane remarked. “It just wasn’t there.”

“It was on one side and the sun was on the other,” Eddie went on. “The moon was closer than it should have been. And a funny color, almost like bronze. And the ocean creeping up. We went halfway around the world and all we saw was ocean. Except in one place, there was this chunk of land sticking up, this hill, and the guide told us it was the top of Mount Everest.” He waved to Fran. “That was groovy, huh, floating in our tin boat next to the top of Mount Everest. Maybe ten feet of it sticking up. And the water rising all the time. Up, up, up. Up and over the top. Glub. No land left. I have to admit it was a little disappointing, except of course the idea of the thing. That human ingenuity can design a machine that can send people billions of years forward in time and bring them back, wow! But there was just this ocean.”

“How strange,” said Jane. “We saw an ocean too, but there was a beach, a kind of nasty beach, and the crab-thing walking along it, and the sun—it was all red, was the sun red when you saw it?”

“A kind of pale green,” Fred said.

“Are you people talking about the end of the world?” Tom asked. He and Harriet were standing by the door taking off their coats. Mike’s son must have let them in. Tom gave his coat to Ruby and said, “Man, what a spectacle!”

“So you did it too?” Jane asked, a little hollowly.

“Two weeks ago,” said Tom. “The travel agent called and said, Guess what we’re offering now, the end of the goddamned world! With all the extras it didn’t really cost so much. So we went right down there to the office, Saturday, I think—was it a Friday?—the day of the big riot, anyway, when they burned St. Louis —”

“That was a Saturday,” Cynthia said. “I remember I was coming back from the shopping center when the radio said they were using nuclears—”

“Saturday, yes,” Tom said. “And we told them we were ready to go, and off they sent us.”

“Did you see a beach with crabs,” Stan demanded, “or was it a world full of water?”

“Neither one. It was like a big ice age. Glaciers covered everything. No oceans showing, no mountains. We flew clear around the world and it was all a huge snowball. They had floodlights on the vehicle because the sun had gone out.”

“I was sure I could see the sun still hanging up there,” Harriet put in. “Like a ball of cinders in the sky. But the guide said no, nobody could see it.”

“How come everybody gets to visit a different kind of end of the world?” Henry asked. “You’d think there’d be only one kind of end of the world. I mean, it ends, and this is how it ends, and there can’t be more than one way.”

“Could it be a fake?” Stan asked. Everybody turned around and looked at him. Nick’s face got very red. Fran looked so mean that Eddie let go of Cynthia and started to rub Fran’s shoulders. Stan shrugged. “I’m not suggesting it is,” he said defensively. “I was just wondering.”

“Seemed pretty real to me,” said Tom. “The sun burned out. A big ball of ice. The atmosphere, you know, frozen. The end of the goddamned world.”

The telephone rang. Ruby went to answer it. Nick asked Paula about lunch on Tuesday. She said yes. “Let’s meet at the motel,” he said, and she grinned. Eddie was making out with Cynthia again. Henry looked very stoned and was having trouble staying awake. Phil and Isabel arrived. They heard Tom and Fran talking about their trips to the end of the world and Isabel said she and Phil had gone only the day before yesterday. “Goddamn,” Tom said, “everybody’s doing it! What was your trip like?”

Ruby came back into the room. “That was my sister calling from Fresno to say she’s safe. Fresno wasn’t hit by the earthquake at all.”

“Earthquake?” Paula said.

“In California,” Mike told her. “This afternoon. You didn’t know? Wiped out most of Los Angeles and ran right up the coast practically to Monterey. They think it was on account of the underground bomb test in the Mohave Desert.”

“ California ’s always having such awful disasters,” Marcia said.

“Good thing those amoebas got loose back east,” said Nick. “Imagine how complicated it would be if they had them in L.A. now too.”

“They will,” Tom said. “Two to one they reproduce by airborne spores.”

“Like the typhoid germs last November,” Jane said.

“That was typhus,” Nick corrected.

“Anyway,” Phil said, “I was telling Tom and Fran about what we saw at the end of the world. It was the sun going nova. They showed it very cleverly, too. I mean, you can’t actually sit around and experience it, on account of the heat and the hard radiation and all. But they give it to you in a peripheral way, very elegant in the McLuhanesque sense of the word. First they take you to a point about two hours before the blowup, right? It’s I don’t know how many jillion years from now, but a long way, anyhow, because the trees are all different, they’ve got blue scales and ropy branches, and the animals are like things with one leg that jump on pogo sticks—”

“Oh, I don’t believe that,” Cynthia drawled.

Phil ignored her gracefully. “And we didn’t see any sign of human beings, not a house, not a telephone pole, nothing, so I suppose we must have been extinct a long time before. Anyway, they let us look at that for a while. Not getting out of our time machine, naturally, because they said the atmosphere was wrong. Gradually the sun started to puff up. We were nervous—weren’t we, Iz?—I mean, suppose they miscalculated things? This whole trip is a very new concept and things might go wrong. The sun was getting bigger and bigger, and then this thing like an arm seemed to pop out of its left side, a big fiery arm reaching out across space, getting closer and closer. We saw it through smoked glass, like you do an eclipse. They gave us about two minutes of the explosion, and we could feel it getting hot already. Then we jumped a couple of years forward in time. The sun was back to its regular shape, only it was smaller, sort of like a little white sun instead of a big yellow one. And on Earth everything was ashes.”

“Ashes,” Isabel said, with emphasis.

“It looked like Detroit after the union nuked Ford,” Phil said. “Only much, much worse. Whole mountains were melted. The oceans were dried up. Everything was ashes.” He shuddered and took a joint from Mike. “Isabel was crying.”

“The things with one leg,” Isabel said. “I mean, they must have all been wiped out.” She began to sob. Stan comforted her. “I wonder why it’s a different way for everyone who goes,” he said. “Freezing. Or the oceans. Or the sun blowing up. Or the thing Nick and Jane saw.”

“I’m convinced that each of us had a genuine experience in the far future,” said Nick. He felt he had to regain control of the group somehow. It had been so good when he was telling his story, before those others had come. “That is to say, the world suffers a variety of natural calamities, it doesn’t just have one end of the world, and they keep mixing things up and sending people to different catastrophes. But never for a moment did I doubt that I was seeing an authentic event.”

“We have to do it,” Ruby said to Mike. “It’s only three hours. What about calling them first thing Monday and making an appointment for Thursday night?”

“Monday’s the President’s funeral,” Tom pointed out. “The travel agency will be closed.”

“Have they caught the assassin yet?” Fran asked.

“They didn’t mention it on the four o’clock news,” said Stan. “I guess he’ll get away like the last one.”

“Beats me why anybody wants to be President,” Phil said.

Mike put on some music. Nick danced with Paula. Eddie danced with Cynthia. Henry was asleep. Dave, Paula’s husband, was on crutches because of his mugging, and he asked Isabel to sit and talk with him. Tom danced with Harriet even though he was married to her. She hadn’t been out of the hospital more than a few months since the transplant and he treated her extremely tenderly. Mike danced with Fran. Phil danced with Jane. Stan danced with Marcia. Ruby cut in on Eddie and Cynthia. Afterward Tom danced with Jane and Phil danced with Paula. Mike and Ruby’s little girl woke up and came out to say hello. Mike sent her back to bed. Far away there was the sound of an explosion. Nick danced with Paula again, but he didn’t want her to get bored with him before Tuesday, so he excused himself and went to talk with Dave. Dave handled most of Nick’s investments. Ruby said to Mike, “The day after the funeral, will you call the travel agent?” Mike said he would, but Tom said somebody would probably shoot the new President too and there’d be another funeral. These funerals were demolishing the gross national product, Stan observed, on account of how everything had to close all the time. Nick saw Cynthia wake Henry up and ask him sharply if he would take her on the end-of-the-world trip. Henry looked embarrassed. His factory had been blown up at Christmas in a peace demonstration and everybody knew he was in bad shape financially. “You can charge it,” Cynthia said, her fierce voice carrying above the chitchat. “And it’s so beautiful, Henry. The ice. Or the sun exploding. I want to go.”

“Lou and Janet were going to be here tonight too,” Ruby said to Paula. “But their younger boy came back from Texas with that new kind of cholera and they had to cancel.”

Phil said, “I understand that one couple saw the moon come apart. It got too close to the Earth and split into chunks and the chunks fell like meteors. Smashing everything up, you know. One big piece nearly hit their time machine.”

“I wouldn’t have liked that at all,” Marcia said.

“Our trip was very lovely,” said Jane. “No violent things at all. Just the big red sun and the tide and that crab creeping along the beach. We were both deeply moved.”

“It’s amazing what science can accomplish nowadays,” Fran said.

Mike and Ruby agreed they would try to arrange a trip to the end of the world as soon as the funeral was over. Cynthia drank too much and got sick. Phil, Tom, and Dave discussed the stock market. Harriet told Nick about her operation. Isabel flirted with Mike, tugging her neckline lower. At midnight someone turned on the news. They had some shots of the earthquake and a warning about boiling your water if you lived in the affected states. The President’s widow was shown visiting the last President’s widow to get some pointers for the funeral. Then there was an interview with an executive of the time-trip company. “Business is phenomenal,” he said. “Time-tripping will be the nation’s number one growth industry next year.” The reporter asked him if his company would soon be offering something beside the end-of-the-world trip. “Later on, we hope to,” the executive said. “We plan to apply for Congressional approval soon. But meanwhile the demand for our present offering is running very high. You can’t imagine. Of course, you have to expect apocalyptic stuff to attain immense popularity in times like these.” The reporter said, “What do you mean, times like these?” but as the time-trip man started to reply, he was interrupted by the commercial. Mike shut off the set. Nick discovered that he was extremely depressed. He decided that it was because so many of his friends had made the journey, and he had thought he and Jane were the only ones who had. He found himself standing next to Marcia and tried to describe the way the crab had moved, but Marcia only shrugged. No one was talking about time-trips now. The party had moved beyond that point. Nick and Jane left quite early and went right to sleep, without making love. The next morning the Sunday paper wasn’t delivered because of the Bridge Authority strike, and the radio said that the mutant amoebas were proving harder to eradicate than originally anticipated. They were spreading into Lake Superior and everyone in the region would have to boil all drinking water. Nick and Jane discussed where they would go for their next vacation. “What about going to see the end of the world all over again?” Jane suggested, and Nick laughed quite a good deal.

The End

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